Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Online group psychology; why review tea, part two

Some of this could be my imagination leading in odd directions, but I think a deeper level answer to "why review tea," related to tea bloggers, as considered in this post, has to do with an online version of group-related psychology.  I'm speculating that self-identifying is one purpose, defining oneself as a member of one or more sets of tea enthusiasts, perhaps even more than having any other final goal in mind.  Of course I also write for different reasons, to keep track of review notes and links, to practice writing, and so on.  But here I'll consider the answer that tea blogging and review could relate to an unusual form of group involvement, relating to sharing an interest, potentially played out as much online as in real life, or perhaps both.

Obvious enough, but with that said, what would the rest of this post be about?  It's not as if I could distill that down to some clear and simple principles that no one is aware of; people talk about things online, in blogs, in groups, and otherwise.  So I'll just ramble on and cite some things, the usual approach.

This online reference on the psychology of groups can serve as a starting point:

Groups are not only founts of information during times of ambiguity, they also help us answer the existentially significant question, “Who am I?” Common sense tells us that our sense of self is our private definition of who we are, a kind of archival record of our experiences, qualities, and capabilities. Yet, the self also includes all those qualities that spring from memberships in groups. People are defined not only by their traits, preferences, interests, likes, and dislikes, but also by their friendships, social roles, family connections, and group memberships. The self is not just a “me,” but also a “we.”

Even demographic qualities such as sex or age can influence us if we categorize ourselves based on these qualities. Social identity theory, for example, assumes that we don’t just classify other people into such social categories as man, woman, Anglo, elderly, or college student, but we also categorize ourselves. Moreover, if we strongly identify with these categories, then we will ascribe the characteristics of the typical member of these groups to ourselves, and so stereotype ourselves. If, for example, we believe that college students are intellectual, then we will assume we, too, are intellectual if we identify with that group (Hogg, 2001).

groups graphic (credit)

Beyond starting a blog and writing reviews, or discussion in groups, there's always real life as a fall-back.  Someone could meet others in person and drink tea with them, with some clear advantages to that approach, but a limited form group association no longer absolutely requires that.  At some point limiting contact to online format only might seem a bit thin, less likely to extend to "real" friendships, but the basic dynamics might be similar.

Throughout the rest of this mixing ideas about group psychology with implied claims that online social patterns occur in comparable forms might be seen as problematic.  There are real groups, and also online social contact, and they seem related but different.  One often encounters the idea that online associations only become valid as an extension of real-life connections, or as a means to initiate those.  Make of all that what you will.  Feel free to reject the association, or think it through and form your own conclusions.  I don't think that the role online interactions play in relation to real-life forms is as clear as that might be, even though many of us have plenty of online experience to base an impression of that on.

A few more ideas from that initial source work to outline purpose, why group inclusion is desirable, and also relate to keeping score within a group, to ways to judge how well participation is going:

Groups also provide a variety of means for maintaining and enhancing a sense of self-worth, as our assessment of the quality of groups we belong to influences our collective self-esteem (Crocker & Luhtanen, 1990). If our self-esteem is shaken by a personal setback, we can focus on our group’s success and prestige. In addition, by comparing our group to other groups, we frequently discover that we are members of the better group, and so can take pride in our superiority. By denigrating other groups, we elevate both our personal and our collective self-esteem (Crocker & Major, 1989).

Mark Leary’s sociometer model goes so far as to suggest that “self-esteem is part of a sociometer that monitors peoples’ relational value in other people’s eyes” (2007, p. 328). He maintains self-esteem is not just an index of one’s sense of personal value, but also an indicator of acceptance into groups. Like a gauge that indicates how much fuel is left in the tank, a dip in self-esteem indicates exclusion from our group is likely...

Interesting!  Definitely drifting off the central topic a bit, but there are some related points to make.

Related to the first points, not only does being a tea enthusiast in a group add more value to the association, beyond that being the right kind of tea drinker, having the right preferences or experience or interacting with the right people, also works out better.  One could choose to take their rightful place in the smart and knowledgeable tea enthusiasts' group, a sure sign they are the same way.

Related to the second set of ideas, about self esteem and personal value, how could someone be excluded from an online group for being an inferior tea enthusiast?  Just mentioning making tea from tea bags in some groups might be a good example, or discussing adding sugar to tea.  Finer distinctions enter in related to teaware choices, or tea types preferences, or general knowledge.  It also seems like more interesting grouping patterns don't even relate to those things, but perhaps instead to personality types (with more to follow on that).

Facebook tea group I helped found and admin  (link)

Of course I'm not prone to feeling superior to others based on a beverage choice, related to the darker turns all those ideas could take.  I don't tend to drink tea from tea bags, or blends, but I'm not offended by that kind of thing.  Then again, if someone asks for suggestions about either in a group I wouldn't have much to add.  Any comment that includes the content "I don't normally drink that," combined with some other ideas to justify saying anything, could be a form of that self-differentiation.  One could become active in a group related to Gongfu Cha, a "higher" form of tea practice, related to those earlier alignment ideas, and that range of subjects would never even come up.

These lines of thinking, about group inclusiveness and acceptance, could also drift off the topic of group dynamics into personal psychological traits, since characteristics like openness and agreeableness relate to this.  Check out this reference citation that subject:

Agreeableness:  this personality dimension includes attributes such as trust, altruism, kindness, affection and other prosocial behaviors.  People who are high in agreeableness tend to be more cooperative while those low in this trait tend to be more competitive and even manipulative.

Sounds like that "disagreeable" person wouldn't be much fun to be around, doesn't it?  Or maybe even to hear from in discussion comments.  I've read elsewhere that less agreeable people make better managers because they're not so worried about making everyone happy, and just get on with making decisions completely separate from that concern.  That sort of rings a bell, culturally speaking.

There are online discussion "areas" out there where you wonder why anyone would continue to participate in being so negative, in the form of being judgmental, or insulting, or somewhere in between, and it could relate to sharing attributes like that one.  There is a Thai expat group in which most posts are quickly met with responses along the line of "you should just kill yourself," offered as humor.  It's not a happy place to exchange ideas, unless that fits with someone's sense of humor, and then maybe it is.

It's interesting to consider to what degree people could feel higher or lower self-esteem based on acceptance in a purely online context.  Entry and exit is easy in online groups.  How would that work, for bloggers in particular though?  Starting a blog is easy, but how to gauge social acceptance?

I guess that could be charted by viewer numbers, at least in part.  Or by other types of social contact aspects, related to being included in a summary of best posts, being cited, added to a blog role, linked to within other blogs (although that seems less commonly practiced now); any number of things.  Or real-life recognition could take different forms, like some sort of award.

group functional stages (credit this reference)

Interesting set of group stages and activities in the graphic, isn't it?  I'm going to have to leave most of that unexamined, but I will get back to a couple of points.  Obviously enough we can see a difference in more typical real-life social groups (clubs, etc.) and online associations in the norming and performing stages.  Online associations are marked by a lack of cohesiveness; anyone can show up, culling members out of the group isn't always so simple (although depending on the group interactions maybe it would be, "banning").  Achieving any combined goals in an online group is problematic, especially a loosely defined one.  Just keeping discussion active exhausts most of the potential.

There are ways around that, potential for tightening membership up and aligning interests.  Related to writing blogs about tea, something like the Tea Blogger's Association makes it clear who is in and who's out, related to defining a set, and setting some guidelines.  It seems like that group might have been more active in the past but that general point remains the same; people seek out ways to solidify relations, if they are so inclined.  Training and certifications could also relate, or any number of other ways to obtain labels or in-group status, but I won't go into those here.

Let's leave aside the issues of how good a fit this really is, comparing what a blogger does with a real-life group, and shift even further into group psychology.  None of this really will settle how much sense it's making, applying ideas from real-life group dynamics to much looser associations online, but there are some interesting next ideas to consider after leaving that aside.

tea review site and discussion forum (link)

Different relations between in-group and out-group members

This is where the subject gets interesting; related to what people do in groups they may not even notice being in, about how perspective differences play out.  Check this out (from a Scientific American blog post):

A large literature in social psychology shows that we process information about our in-group more deeply, we remember more positive details, make greater personal evaluations, and allocate resources more generally to those in the in-group. What's more, negative actions of those in the in-group are thought to arise from situational factors, whereas positive ones are thought to be inherent qualities of the individual, whereas the reverse is believed about members of the out-group.

Indeed, there is an emerging literature on "pathological altruism", suggesting that extreme compassion can have downsides such as difficulty passing judgment of right vs. wrong, and forgiving all transgression and failures of those in the in-group while acting highly protective and aggressive toward those in the out-group, even sometimes in the absence of actual provocation and injustice.

two evils

It makes me think of politics straight away, although it may be as well to not drift too far into that topic.  The "left and right, liberal versus conservative" sides tend to lump together the opposing side, and quickly distill it all into wrong versus right.  Whatever comes up related to their side is just fine, just a minor glitch at worst, easy to accept regardless of how awkwardly things play out.  Members of the other side are just idiots, with every negative turn indicating a deeply flawed worldview.

Within expat circles people tend to break along one main line of differentiation, related to fully integrating into the host society or remaining largely separate from it.  Of course it's not quite that clear, and some are in the middle, but generally people emphasize one approach over the other.  Related to these ideas about exclusiveness, in some cases people tend to become antagonistic about the other approach, to reject it as invalid.  On the one side there's a claim that people that can't immerse in a local culture and fully appreciate it should just go back home, extended to wherever that leads, for example to the idea that local language fluency is critical, or only eating local foods.  The claim on the other side is that "integration" emphasis leads to blindly apologizing for all local limitations, refusing to accept that there is good and bad in any cultural perspective, or to the position that food preferences really aren't that critical either way.  The truths and biases mixed together in both sets of claims make them difficult to sort out.

Another part of that second set of points in that citation is interesting:  if someone did or said something perceived negatively within the group--however that was defined--then that would be attributed to just a part of that circumstance, only related to the person, but if someone did the same thing from outside the group that would reflect on them as a member of some category.  And the last part is about interpretive bias tied to that, how the positive or negative spin is overly emphasized.

It's a stretch dragging all this back to tea circles, to be honest.  It just wouldn't seem to stick related to something like shared participation in a forum, and besides, the subject is tea.  Someone might see people inclined to drink tea made from tea bags as an outsider, or a lower form of tea drinker, or labeling as "snobs" in the other direction, but those types of connections related to grouping and judgments just mentioned goes a bit far.  It might work better once more cohesion is developed, in a set of people that communicate more often, or "know" each other, not just tied to whoever shows up somewhere online and prepares a drink in the same way.

That relates to the "norming and performing" aspects in that group functions table.  To some extent it may be a problem for an online group to clearly define these, to set limits, and to take those next steps.  Inclusiveness could actually become a problem, related to that, due to incomplete "forming and storming" steps (note that chart includes a typo; there is no "stroming").  I'll drop this exploration of that process modeling though, just mentioning an interesting short definition of those stages in a business management context.

Some examples of negative biases and active exclusion related to tea circles do come to mind, most of which don't seem suitable for sharing.  I can only think of two cases where people were completely and explicitly excluded from an assumed in-group, related to tea, and both did get a little ugly.  I've been kicked out of a tea group before (a long story, tied to one of those cases).  I'm not counting that as a related example, just more background about things coming up.

It might seem like within tea circles the practice of one-upping or even slighting others seems to reject the dynamics work out in this way, as a true example of grouping.  It's not all just a love-fest, and people don't really seem so cohesive, in lots of cases.  Some people are like that, positive about anything, but "my tea is better than your tea" type commentary comes up, sometimes in the form of "you're not doing it right."  That could just tie back to the "storming" phase idea, about defining roles, or a different part of that first study into group psychology has some insights that might relate:

Groups not only satisfy the need to belong, they also provide members with information, assistance, and social support. Leon Festinger’s theory of social comparison (1950, 1954) suggested that in many cases people join with others to evaluate the accuracy of their personal beliefs and attitudes... 

Although any kind of companionship is appreciated, we prefer those who provide us with reassurance and support as well as accurate information. In some cases, we also prefer to join with others who are even worse off than we are. Imagine, for example, how you would respond when the teacher hands back the test and yours is marked 85%. Do you want to affiliate with a friend who got a 95% or a friend who got a 78%? To maintain a sense of self-worth, people seek out and compare themselves to the less fortunate. 

This process is known as downward social comparison.

So we really do want that good advice about using a different water temperature for making a certain tea (or about sourcing, whatever the subject is), but at the same time to a limited extent we might also want to be the person that offers that advice more than to be the one receiving it.  Of course everyone in the group can't be above average, a great general resource for answers, but it might be possible to take turns offering that last interesting insight.  Assuming all of this really does map onto online group dynamics (which I'll stop mentioning) it would always be possible to lurk in a more informative, "higher level" of experience group, to remain quieter there, and be a more active member in a less informed group, thus satisfying both demands in different ways.

World Tea Expo bloggers panel (photo credit)

Circling back to the review / blogging case

This all drifts further to online group issues, doesn't it?  Related to actually writing blog posts, that's not really social (drifting back to the earliest starting point:  the question "why review tea?").  Some tea bloggers' posts draw some comments but that's more typically the exception.  But it does seem to work to position that relatively individual activity within a social framework, to see it as playing a social role.

Bloggers make that more or less explicit in the writing; some are about social networked themes, and others seem to imply that context is of limited importance to them.  A review-only blog is at one extreme; completely unrelated to social contact.  All the same there's no reason why a blog that absolutely never mentions that any other humans exist, beyond the existence of tea vendors, couldn't still be serving a social role.  Readers as an audience are implied, at a minimum.  Part of the point could be to participate in a general, online-format discussion, but in a very indirect form.

This reminds me of the divide between introverts and extroverts.  A friend's take on this, a self-declared introvert, is that the key difference is a tolerance for social contact.  Obvious enough, with his point being that it's not just about liking or disliking being around other people, it's about being wired for not tolerating much of it versus essentially requiring that.  Online contact can serve as a middle ground for an introvert, according to him.  It's plenty of social distance; those people aren't right next to you, actively interacting, so it's tolerable.  That earlier reference summarizes it this way:

Extraversion is characterized by excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness and high amounts of emotional expressiveness.  People who are high in extroversion are outgoing and tend to gain energy in social situations. People who are low in extroversion (or introverted) tend to be more reserved and have to expend energy in social settings.

I guess the "Friends" sit-com characters were extroverts, spending every minute of their free time in a group of a half-dozen, while the "Seinfeld" characters may have potentially been introverts, just joining up for short chat sessions in very small groups and short outings.  I'm not sure how it interacts with these other factors but it seems possible online groups / interaction may enable more introverted people to participate in similar forms as in public contact, just outside of it.  At the far extreme reviewing teas could be like writing a journal, just online, still discussing tea socially, but just barely in terms of interaction.

Life cycle of associations; group "adjourning" played out online

Does all this work in my own case, this perspective?  I'm not so sure.  To some extent it does seem to be a real-life social activity replacement.  Viewer-numbers "scoring" does sort of work, a sign of involvement, and limited positive feedback in a sense since it keeps improving.  But then to some extent I have trouble placing why I'm still writing about tea.  It started as an experiment, to practice writing, and keep track of notes and research, and enable discussion, but I'm not as certain of which range of purposes really did work out.

All of this leads me to consider one last facet; tying these online group associations to the idea of groups "adjourning" and associations ceasing.  I'm reminded of a closing statement in a blog that went inactive:


Ok, I fought it and fought it, but the blog is officialy dead. It saddens me, as tea has given me much pleasure, as has this blog. Unfortunately for now my interests and hobbies have moved on to other things.

Maybe there's no deeper point to cite there.  As people define themselves, so can they change those interests and definitions.  A tea drinker could take up coffee, or tisanes, or juicing, or just not get around to posting.  That blog author mentioned participating in creating a tea site with friends, wikicha (which now links to a notice the domain name is for sale), which invokes the tie-in to other social concerns, which also ceased.

I participated in an active Asian-themed expat forum that went through that whole life-cycle, ramping up to a large active membership, with thousands of members (with maybe only a few dozen actively posting at any given time).  It spanned hundreds of discussion threads, with the more active core-group members posting in the range of 5-10,000 comments.  It's here, Xpat Life, formerly Orient Expat, with some remaining static content described as such:

If you have a question, or need advice on a subject not covered here, visit our forum by clicking the links to the left, which is staffed by experienced expats and frequented by a loyal membership who'll be happy to discuss this wonderful country with you.

But that section was shut down, and those links were removed.  It sort of just ran out of steam, for different reasons.

I helped found two separate Facebook tea groups, one of which I'm still active in, and an admin for, and it's been interesting seeing that group life-cycle from that perspective.

This seems like this is a good place to either transition to a deeper level of insights about how online groups thrive and then die or close this, and I've covered too much ground already.  It's funny how online social contact goes.  I hope that reading these rambling, tiresome posts means something to someone, and that sharing a love of tea really can extend a little beyond sharing a beverage preference, even if only through online connections.


  1. I don't disagree with anything you've written here (apart from spelling 'segue' as though it were a two wheeled motorised contrivance) but sometimes I think asking the question is enough. The answer isn't as useful as the asking of the question, over a cuppa.

    1. Thanks for the editing input. I really should have blogger friends to talk to in real life about some of this. The part about groups, most of the background, evolved from online discussion about expat perspectives. Then someone asking me why people review tea connected it back to blogging.